Modern Art Redefining The Word 'Antique'

29/04/2022     General News

Tim Blyth of Keys Auctioneers & Valuers says that modern art and design is helping redefine the word ‘antique’.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an antique is ‘a collectable object that has a high value because of its age and quality’. 

Certainly the words ‘collectable’ and ‘quality’ are very appropriate – but how do we define whether something is an antique because of its age?  No-one would deny that items from the 19th century and earlier can be classed as antique – but what about things which originate from a time within living memory?

This debate is becoming increasingly irrelevant.  We are now seeing an explosion in the popularity of art and design from the 20th century, including the post-war years, a phenomenon which has also seen a new generation of collectors coming into the saleroom. 

Interest in items from the 20th century is nothing new.  The enduring popularity of Art Nouveau and Art Deco is well-documented – but these are items from 100 years or more ago, and so can safely be defined as antiques, even if they retain a strong relevance to today’s tastes. 

The big growth in interest in recent times has been in design and art from the post-war period, a time which could be called a ‘golden era’ of British design, kick-started by the Festival of Britain in 1951, and a new-found optimism which grew from a rapid growth in affluence and consumerism.

In the 1960s came design-led retailers such as Conran, and a new-found confidence in the modern.  Past, less happy times were rejected in favour of a belief in the present and the future, which certainly looked brighter than it had for many decades.

At the same time, a new wave of artists were bringing a new style of art to the masses.  Art schools such as Slade were nurturing artists like Craige Aitchinson, while pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein brought together contemporary art and mainstream pop culture, and photographers such as Helmut Newton, David Bailey and Richard Avedon were documenting the swinging sixties.

20th century design and modern art – especially the period from the 1950s to the 1970s – is now very collectable.

Since 2018 Keys has been holding Modern Art and Design Sales, attracting many buyers who have never set foot in an auction room, and who probably wouldn’t have identified themselves as antique collectors.  Perhaps the word ‘vintage’, now so popular, would be more appropriate.

These buyers have come to realise the quality of much of the art and design from the second half of the last century, and how well it fits into modern homes where older, more traditional antiques might feel out of place.

And given the high quality of much of what will be going under the hammer, and its eminently collectable nature, who cares whether the Oxford lexicographers regard it as strictly ‘antique’? 

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